In Syria Chemical Probe, Can U.N. Investigators Avoid Saying Who Hit Who?

In this Friday, Sept 7, 2012 file photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter runs after attacking a tank with a rocket-propelled grenade during fighting in the Izaa district in Aleppo, Syria. More than two years into Syria's civil war, the once highly-centralized authoritarian state has effectively split into three distinct parts, each boasting its own flags, security agencies and judicial system.
National Journal
Cameron Smith, Special to Global Security Newswire
Aug. 9, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — A United Na­tions in­spec­tion mis­sion to Syr­ia that could be­gin with­in the next week will seek to de­term­ine if chem­ic­al weapon at­tacks have taken place in the na­tion’s two-year con­flict, but re­portedly will stop short of as­sess­ing which side was to blame.

How real­ist­ic is that?

Des­pite in­tense in­ter­na­tion­al pres­sure to as­sign re­spons­ib­il­ity for an es­tim­ated 100-plus deaths due to chem­ic­al at­tacks, the stated goal of the mis­sion steers clear of that in­ter­na­tion­al light­ning rod. Some is­sue ex­perts are say­ing this lim­it­a­tion on scope takes the teeth out of any U.N. find­ings that might be made.

Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies have al­leged that Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar As­sad has crossed a “red line“ in un­leash­ing chem­ic­al strikes, while Rus­sia has countered that it sus­pects op­pos­i­tion fight­ers of do­ing the same. The Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment and rebel forces each deny they are to blame, in­stead point­ing fin­gers at the oth­er.

Lim­its on the scope of the up­com­ing on-the-ground in­vest­ig­a­tion have come amid these dif­fer­ences between power­ful U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil per­man­ent mem­bers and As­sad’s re­fus­al to give in­spect­ors free rein.

Un­der U.N. guidelines about al­leged chem­ic­al weapons use, the sec­ret­ary-gen­er­al has the lat­it­ude to de­term­ine how an in­vest­ig­a­tion will be con­duc­ted. The guidelines also state that a U.N. mem­ber state should re­ceive an in­spec­tion team “without pre­ju­dice to al­low for timely and ef­fi­cient in­vest­ig­a­tions.”

However, the pro­cess of ne­go­ti­at­ing with Syr­ia has made put­ting in­vest­ig­at­ors on the ground much harder for U.N. Sec­ret­ary-Gen­er­al Ban Ki-moon.

As­sad “thinks that he is go­ing to win” the two-year-old civil war and is “try­ing to re­hab­il­it­ate his im­age,” something that would be “very dif­fi­cult to do” if he is linked to chem­ic­al weapons at­tacks against Syr­i­an ci­vil­ians, said Theodore Kat­touf, a former U.S. am­bas­sad­or to Syr­ia.

Dam­as­cus to date has said it would al­low in­vest­ig­at­ors ac­cess to the sites of just three al­leged chem­ic­al at­tacks — as­saults that Bashar As­sad’s re­gime has at­trib­uted to op­pos­i­tion forces. Those are the town of Khan al-As­sal, where an al­leged sar­in gas at­tack on March 19 killed at least 26 people, and two loc­a­tions that dip­lo­mats told Agence France-Presse were in Homs, fol­low­ing a pos­sible Dec. 23 chem­ic­al in­cid­ent, and near Dam­as­cus, al­legedly struck in March.

By con­trast, anti-gov­ern­ment mil­it­ants have agreed to fully co­oper­ate with the in­vest­ig­a­tions and have said the 10-mem­ber U.N. team, to be led by Swedish sci­ent­ist Ake Sell­strom, may ex­er­cise full ac­cess to sites in rebel-held ter­rit­ory. In par­tic­u­lar, the Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion has urged the United Na­tions to in­spect an ad­di­tion­al site in the town of Adra, where rebels as­sert that As­sad used tox­ic chem­ic­als on ci­vil­ians.

It is un­clear wheth­er the op­pos­i­tion pledge of open ac­cess will make a dif­fer­ence on the ground.

“If the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment has only ap­proved three sites, that’s all in­spect­ors are go­ing to see,” Kat­touf said, based on his un­der­stand­ing of the situ­ation. That would make it highly un­likely that in­vest­ig­at­ors could veri­fy chem­ic­al weapons use at any of the sites that rebels are ur­ging them to check.

What’s more, the pas­sage of time since the three at­tacks are al­leged to have tran­spired could have erased most or all of the evid­ence — and make any evid­ence that re­mains some­what sus­pect, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts.

One of the best ways to at­trib­ute a chem­ic­al at­tack to one side or an­oth­er is by identi­fy­ing the proven­ance of the de­liv­ery sys­tem, said Amy Smith­son, a chem­ic­al weapons non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ex­pert at the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies.

However, be­cause so much time has passed and much of the coun­try re­mains a war zone, “that type of evid­ence may not be at the in­cid­ent sites any more,” she said.

The in­teg­rity of the as­sault loc­a­tions to be in­vest­ig­ated is a ma­jor ques­tion mark, as well. “The like­li­hood that these sites re­main un­dis­turbed in the midst of a civil war is very low,” Smith­son said.

For any phys­ic­al evid­ence on the ground or med­ic­al samples that are ob­tained, in­vest­ig­at­ors “are not likely to be able to con­firm the chain of cus­tody,” thus “ren­der­ing that evid­ence ques­tion­able,” Smith­son said.

To some, the mis­sion will be for naught if chem­ic­al weapon use is dis­covered but neither side is cited as hav­ing ori­gin­ated the at­tack.

A U.N. in­spec­tion mis­sion that rules out a search for at­tri­bu­tion “makes it mean­ing­less,” as­ser­ted An­drew Ta­bler, a seni­or fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Policy and a former journ­al­ist in Dam­as­cus.

In past con­flicts, it has some­times been pos­sible to cred­ibly pin al­leged chem­ic­al weapon use on one side or an­oth­er, Smith­son said.

One in­stance was a 1988 re­port con­clud­ing that both Ir­aq and Ir­an had used chem­ic­al weapons in the nearly eight-year Ir­an-Ir­aq war. That WMD con­flag­ra­tion promp­ted the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil to ad­opt Res­ol­u­tion 620, which states the body’s dis­may that there had been re­peated, and in­creas­ingly in­tense, chem­ic­al weapons use in the con­flict, par­tic­u­larly by Ir­aqi forces. Ir­an’s chem­ic­al weapons pro­gram was be­gun as a re­sponse to the use of chem­ic­al agents by Ir­aqi forces dur­ing that war.

In­ter­na­tion­al in­quir­ies do not al­ways res­ult in con­firmed at­tacks though. Past in­vest­ig­a­tions at times have de­term­ined that “al­leg­a­tions have no mer­it,” ac­cord­ing to Smith­son. For ex­ample, she said, “a 1992 in­vest­ig­a­tion of a sup­posed chem­ic­al at­tack by the Mozambic­an Na­tion­al Res­ist­ance found no evid­ence to sub­stan­ti­ate the charge.”

The United Na­tions on Tues­day an­nounced that fi­nal pre­par­a­tions were be­ing made for the Syr­ia in­spec­tion op­er­a­tion.

Ban re­leased a state­ment through his press of­fice say­ing that trip de­tails would be fi­nal­ized “with­in the next days.” Sell­strom’s team of chem­ic­al and health ex­perts has re­portedly con­vened at The Hag­ue, Neth­er­lands, and is pre­par­ing to de­part for Syr­ia.

Ta­bler said the lim­ited ac­cess ap­par­ently af­forded to the in­spect­ors would not be enough to con­clude any­thing sig­ni­fic­ant.

“If you’re gonna get in­to it, it’s bet­ter to be com­pre­hens­ive,” he said. The United Na­tions and its team of in­spect­ors would get some­where with their find­ings only if they “don’t bend and stay true to their prin­ciples and are hard-nosed,” Ta­bler said.

But after a long or­deal to gain Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment con­sent for al­low­ing the chem­ic­al weapons in­vest­ig­at­ors in­to the coun­try, lob­by­ing for ac­cess to more loc­a­tions may not be wise, ac­cord­ing to some ex­perts.

“The U.N. might push to in­vest­ig­ate more sites, but that would prob­ably mean ad­di­tion­al delay, which would be det­ri­ment­al to the in­vest­ig­a­tion of the three ar­ranged sites,” Smith­son said.

The lengthy U.N.-Syr­ia ne­go­ti­ations may also have been part of a ploy by As­sad to cre­ate the sense that “any kind of nor­mal in­vest­ig­a­tion is a vic­tory,” Ta­bler said.

The Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment could be hop­ing the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity will be con­tent to have achieved even lim­ited ac­cess on the ground, and thus less likely to press for ac­cess to ad­di­tion­al sites that might im­plic­ate the gov­ern­ment in the use of chem­ic­al agents, he said.

Still, there is a re­mote pos­sib­il­ity that chem­ic­al evid­ence will point back to spe­cif­ic labor­at­or­ies in which leth­al com­pounds were man­u­fac­tured, even if it re­mains un­clear which side in the con­flict un­leashed them.

“There may be hall­marks of a Syr­i­an syn­thes­is pro­gram” in trace amounts of chem­ic­als that the in­spec­tion team could find at in­spec­tion sites, said Smith­son.

The po­ten­tial abil­ity to de­term­ine the ori­gin of a chem­ic­al weapon at­tack through trace amounts of agents left after an at­tack could po­ten­tially ex­plain As­sad’s de­sire to main­tain con­trol over key as­pects of the trip, ac­cord­ing to Kat­touf.

“When it comes to mat­ters such as this, de­cep­tion is al­most a way of life for this re­gime,” he told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. “They have a his­tory of ob­fus­cat­ing. Get­ting to the truth is much harder to do.”

That said, the mere ex­ist­ence of al­leg­a­tions against As­sad and his gov­ern­ment doesn’t mean that the re­gime is “guilty of charges,” Kat­touf ac­know­ledged.

Smith­son agreed that while Syr­i­an re­gime chem­ic­al weapons use has been al­leged by Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies, oth­er scen­ari­os ex­ist in which ex­pos­ure to these deadly agents also might have oc­curred. Pos­sib­il­it­ies in­clude, ac­cord­ing to Smith­son:

— “Syr­i­an forces may have used a chem­ic­al war­fare agent or oth­er tox­ic chem­ic­al to test the wa­ters on es­cal­at­ing the con­flict without an in­ter­na­tion­al out­cry.

— “The op­pos­i­tion, weary of wait­ing for out­side as­sist­ance and aware that the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity largely be­lieves the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment to pos­sess chem­ic­al weapons, might have re­leased a tox­ic chem­ic­al to push oth­er coun­tries to enter the fray. 

— “A con­ven­tion­al bomb might have triggered a re­lease of chem­ic­als from a loc­al fa­cil­ity.  [While] not a de­lib­er­ate event, [this is] something that has happened fre­quently in past con­flicts, such as in Yugoslavia,” Smith­son said.

The num­ber of vari­ables that could con­found at­tri­bu­tion of any chem­ic­al-strike evid­ence is im­mense, she and oth­er ex­perts un­der­scored. However, some small chance re­mains that clues to culp­ab­il­ity will emerge from the U.N.-sponsored trip, des­pite lim­it­a­tions on the scope of in­spec­tions, ex­perts said.

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